Are we Biased AGAINST Top Talent?

We all want to believe that we are looking to recruit, select, and develop top talent.  We spend lots of time reading and writing articles on the topic.  But, what if hiring managers are not interested?

This article throws a bit of cold water on the topic.  It documents a study where hiring managers were shown to doubt the organizational commitment of those deemed the most capable.  It was almost as if they were saying, “Why would someone really good want to work for us?”

There are several issues at work here.  But, what they boil down to is a bias among hiring mangers that negatively affects their selection processes.  Sure, I can imagine anecdotal evidence (“Yeah, we hired that one really bright person, but she jumped ship as soon as she got a better offer.”), but I don’t think that this is a data driven decision.

What this also underlines is the importance of developing a culture that encourages top talent to stay.  There’s no question that selecting the right people will drive business performance.  And having a culture that acknowledges and rewards high performance will do so as well.  When hiring managers feel that top talent will not stay, it is really an indictment of the culture rather than an accurate prediction of management’s view.  How can you fight this?

  1. If managers do not think top talent would be committed to your organization, they should NOT be involved in hiring. 
  2. Those who are doing the hiring should be able to provide a realistic preview of the organization, but should also be able to succinctly describe why people stay.  And I’m not just talking about a good cafeteria.  They should be able to provide examples of people who have found challenging work over time in the organization.
  3. If you are speaking with hiring managers who show an anti-talent bias, ask them what needs to be changed so they would believe that top talent would want to stay.
  4. The best way to fight bias is with data.  You should be able to study turnover rates by talent bands (contact me for tips on this).  This way you can either show people that top talent does not leave any faster than other employee groups or demonstrate to executives that this is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Organizations should strive for selection processes that identify top talent and cultures that nurture them.  Do not let bias against hiring top talent work against these two initiatives.

Shaping Skills to Your Work

It is important to use valid selection tools to hire people for the work you have for them.  But, what happens when technology changes the tasks or the jobs get replaced by automation?  You can let people go as their work becomes obsolete and hire new staff.  However, in times with low unemployment, this strategy will be difficult to execute.  Or, you can train people to acquire the new skills.  This has big implications in industries where tech is changing the nature of work, such as mining and warehousing, just to name two.  However, trying to train lots of people in new skills assumes that they have the interest and aptitude for learning them.  Remember, people chose to pursue their given job/career for a reason.

Amazon and Walmart provide an example of this type of investment.  Their programs include technical and college training.  What is telling about their plans is that neither company considers it a “nice to have.”  Rather, it is an acknowledgement that the skills it takes to run their businesses are changing and they don’t think they can find enough talent to meet future needs in the labor pool.  This may be because so many young people want a career that requires as little work as possible.

The situation also makes one think about selecting people for industries where the skills required change rapidly.  Instead of using tests or interviews that focus on specific abilities, perhaps addressing broader ones, such as openness to new experiences and general aptitude, will serve companies better.

Drilling for Good Candidates

The current low unemployment rates and data mining have led to companies tossing out wider and wider nets to fill positions.  But, is all of this confusing activity with productivity?

This article (thanks to Dennis Adsit for bringing it to my attention) brings up some great reminders about some very solid things that employers should be doing (valid testing, structured interviews, etc.) and avoiding others (tech is NOT a magic bullet for recruitment and selection).  However, it also does a good job of challenging some basic assumptions about hiring, all of which can be evaluated.  These include:

  • Unless you are adding positions, why are you looking for so many outside candidates? One reason people leave companies is because they do not feel they have promotional opportunities.  One reason you are looking for so many outside candidates is that people quit.  Chicken, meet egg.
  • Taken a step further, HR really needs to test the effectiveness of its processes on an ongoing basis. If there is data to support that, in general, outside candidates perform better than those promoted, then keep on searching for them.  And you should probably revamp your entry level recruitment and hiring processes.  If not, then career development and taking steps to increase internal mobility will be more effective actions than scouring the universe of passive candidates for new hires.
  • Develop measures to evaluate the success of what you are doing. Few things frustrate me more than a client saying, “We cannot measure someone’s individual performance.”  Really? Does that mean the cost of turnover is the only reason you keep people in their jobs? Granted, it can take some time to measure output, but you can typically find ways of evaluating a person’s contribution to a team.  If a manager says, “I like/don’t think this person is effective” she should be able to say why.
  • Related to the above, don’t assume that a good process will always have the same effectiveness. As your business changes, recruiting and selection systems need to adapt as well.

I do not think that HR has to constantly be reinvented.  But, basic assumptions should occasionally be challenged.  It is only by measuring and evaluating our processes that we can truly improve them.

Putting Too Fine a Point On It

I will admit that I am more of a big picture person than a perfectionist.  Going through old blog posts would likely lead to the finding of some spelling errors and grammatical mistakes.  That does not bother me as long as I am getting my point across.  I also have a pretty good sense that I am in the minority of people who are willing to admit that I lack a big attention to detail.

At the same time, I also advise clients to use pre-employment tests that measure attention to detail and conscientiousness for those jobs that require it.  So, like other personality traits, it certainly has its place.  I’m just not the person you want looking for needles in haystacks.

So, this article definitely caught my attention.  Here’s the most important takeaway (at least to me) from the authors, “…the answer to the question ‘is perfect good?’ is that in total, perfectionism is likely not constructive at work.”  Given this, what are we really getting when a job candidate tells us that he is a perfectionist?

The data shows that we will get someone who will work long hours, but is not more likely to be engaged in the work.  Rather, perfectionists tend to burn out more than those who can let the little things slide.  This is particularly true of those whose perfectionism comes from a place of avoiding failure than those striving to be excellent.

Most importantly, when compared to supervisor ratings of job performance, y’know, the people the perfectionist is trying to impress, levels of perfectionism are not related.  That’s right—managers feel that the job performance of those who feel that good is good enough is the same as for those who choose to gild the lily.

From a selection perspective, a more subtle approach is called for.  There are some jobs (brain surgeon and quality inspector, to name two) where perfectionism is probably important and should be part of your assessment process.  However, it should not be considered a good universal predictor of performance.  One can easily imagine some jobs where being a perfectionist would be a negative predictor, such as creative jobs like marketing or app design. Also, when interviewing, if a candidate brags about her perfectionism, I would not get too excited.  She may be confusing activity for productivity.

The organizational implications here are straightforward: Having a culture of perfectionism will get you more hours, but not better performance, out of your team.  While not explicitly tested in the article, it is likely to also get you more turnover.  This is a reminder that we should be clear about quality expectations and work-life balance.

Selecting Managers Who Understand the Value of Praise

When I do leadership/management workshops, the first topic is always motivation.  While I am a big believer that motivation must come from within, managers can impact performance, in the short term, by effectively using rewards.

Years of research tells us that cash and other extrinsic rewards can be effective motivators for tasks where individual effort leads to individual results.  However, the bigger the distance between effort and results, the less value these incentives have.  Oh, and they also lose their effect over time.

The wise manager knows that recognition, praise, and other behaviors that lead to intrinsic rewards are much more powerful. This article provides a good synopsis on how to use a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

While there tends to be a strong focus on rewards, something that gets overlooked is how to select managers who already have this insight.  Sure, most can learn it. But, I would think that there are traits that predict how well a person rewards employees.  Three of these would include:

  • A person with a high level of agreeableness is usually warm, friendly, and tactful. They generally have an optimistic view of human nature and get along well with others.  People high on this trait are likely to want to make others feel engaged in their work.
  • Generous people are the ones who give more than is expected of them.  Giving a reward to another person is an act that provides praise or a reward to another person when it could be kept to oneself.
  • View of Employees. Managers who have a “your paycheck is your reward” mentality are not likely to give out a lot of praise.  Those who recognize people as individuals, and learn what their needs are, will be much more likely to provide meaningful motivators.

By making motivational skills part of the valid selection process, we are more likely to hire managers who will seek out opportunities to reward results.  Appropriate use of such techniques will lead to more engaged and productive employees.  They are less likely to turnover, which is critical in our current low unemployment economy.

Celebrating (Painful) Learning

In a previous post I talked about using the Marshmallow Challenge to provide insight into cultures that support risk taking.  Taking the stigma out of making mistakes is one way to encourage creativity.

Taking this to the next level are FUN nights (note that curse words figure prominently into the article).  This is where entrepreneurs are encouraged to share their failures with others.  The thought is that the process makes people more relatable than if they only share your successes.  The promoters feel this leads to better networking among the members.

Organizations could adopt this approach as well, but it would take a bit of a balancing act.  Most companies want their executives to be approachable, but also want them seen as competent.  Employees want to avoid being branded as “the person who had the bad experience.”

The key is to not just share stories of failure.  Rather, talk about growth. When executives reveal experiences about what they learned from mistakes, others can see that risk taking, and the inevitable missteps that come with it, are part of the process of becoming successful.

From a selection perspective, there are traits you can look for in hiring potential leaders who are pre-disposed to this kind of learning.  One is openness to experience.  The other is self-confidence.  Validating these types of measures will help you hire people who are willing to confront their mistakes and share their lessons with others.

Can we Predict Karma in Applicants?

We would all like to think that doing well towards others will benefit us in this (and future?) life.  At the same time, capitalism can encourage some people to act entirely in their self-interest in order to get ahead and create efficient organizations.  So, should we hire good or successful people?

Altruism is a part of the “Big 5” personality construct of Agreeableness.  In business settings, we would consider it how much a person makes other feel welcome versus looking down on others.  Agreeableness has been established as a reasonably good predictor of job performance.

In this study, researchers dug into altruism and how it affected life outcomes, including income.  There are two things that I found interesting and useful about their results:

  • We should not be surprised that altruism leads to financial success in environments that involve teamwork. Working with others is about making 2+2=5 and people need to be willing to think about others to make that happen.  It is important to note that this research did not look at specific occupations.  One can see how altruism would be a bigger plus for some professions (health care) but not in others (sales).
  • Generally, the results showed a straight-line relationship between altruistic motivations and income. However, when looking at altruistic behaviors, there was a point where there could be too much of a good thing an income went down among those who reported the most altruistic behaviors.  This is important from a selection perspective because if you were to use a personality measure (Compared to most people I know, I am very altruistic.), you would want to score it as higher is better.  However, if using a biodata approach (How many times have you given your time to someone else in the past year?), then a curvilinear scoring may be more accurate.

Of course, deciding on any pre-employment screen first requires a good job analysis first.  This study provides an interesting window into how one sub-facet of personality can potentially be predictive of important job behaviors.

It also reminds us to look at the value of pro-social behaviors in the workplace and look for opportunities for employees to do them together.  It builds a culture of altruism that may also lead to greater business success.

Overcoming Selection Buzzwords

When doing a job analysis or writing job descriptions, one of the terms that comes up that makes my hair stand on end is “multi-tasking.”  While our bodies can perform automated functions simultaneously (e.g., driving and talking), our brains cannot consciously do two things at once.  Rather, when I’m “multi-tasking” (like checking my phone and looking up data), what I am really doing is switching quickly (hopefully) between two tasks.  Oh, and recent research shows that men and woman are equally bad at it.

When seeking to understand what managers really want people to do, it is important that we challenge them on vague terms like “multi-task” and “empower.”  When we really get to the meaning of these terms, multi-tasking is being able to handle several projects at once and empower is delegating effectively.  Those are behaviors selection specialists can work with in designing assessments and interviews.

As buzzwords find their way into our conversations about what employees do, our job is to determine the behaviors behind them.  Doing so assigns meaning to the words and starts us on the path of objectively measuring them as part of validated selection systems.

What are your least favorite job description buzzwords?

Reducing Bias Through Structure

Finding examples of racial or gender bias in hiring or job evaluations is not hard.  The latest comes from a survey of lawyers.  My sense is that the results did not come from a random sample of attorneys, so I would not quote the group differences as gospel.  The authors recommended some specific ways that law firms and companies that hire lawyers can correct the bias in their HR processes.  There were two things I took from the study:

  • Many, but not all, of the recommendations came from a solid research base. It was good to see that their hiring suggestions included behaviorally based interviews, skills based assessments, and using behavioral definitions of culture.  Each of these suggestions introduces objectively and structure into the hiring process.
  • Given that attorneys have either brought employment lawsuits or have had to defend companies against them since 1964, did it really take this long to come up with some hiring process recommendations?

My consulting experience tells me that people who hire for professional jobs seem to think there is more magic and intuition in selection than those who staff for other types of positions.  This is especially true when hiring for a job they used to have.  They could not be more wrong.  Every job has a set of critical skills and abilities required to do it well.  It is possible to objectively measure these in candidates.  Doing so will likely reduce bias.

Selection When There Are More Jobs Than People

As the economy adds new jobs, some sectors are having a problem finding enough workers for them, including construction. This is regardless of the pay and benefits associated with the jobs. However, the same is true in other blue-collar sectors. This is not a shock to those of you who have been trying to hire people for these types of positions in companies that were not hit by the great recession. For instance, utility companies have been having a difficult time recruiting lineman (sic) for years, and these jobs pay into the six-figures will full benefits.

While the reasons for the hiring shortage are numerous (“You can’t pay me enough to do that kind of work,” “I’d rather work in tech,” “I want to set my own hours,” etc.), these businesses do have a significant challenge. There are some things that you cannot use technology to replace (yet).

In this situation, HR should take the long view. With low unemployment, it’s unlikely that you can just hire your way out this. The labor pool won’t support it. Rather, companies need to engage with high schools and trade colleges to develop candidates. But, they also need to promote and market these jobs in a way that will make them more appealing because right now. This is because many more young people (and their parents) would rather code than swing a hammer.

To avoid the expense of high turnover when hiring for these positions, companies need to do a very good job of validating good selection tools with tenure in mind (as well as performance). They include:

1) Modified versions of Interest inventories (what are someone’s likes and dislikes).

2) Biographical information (do candidates enjoy physically difficult hobbies) surveys (also known as biodata) are very useful ways to determine whether a person is likely to stay in a specific area of work.

I have had good success in validating these for hard to fill positions in manufacturing. This is especially true where giving physical ability tests are either expensive, have a risk of injury, or may lead to high levels of adverse impact against women.

These companies also need to embrace the investment in training and accelerating wages as new hires gain more skills. I have seen this put to effective use in reducing turnover.

There will not be a silver-bullet for creating enough workers for physically demanding jobs in the near term. However, employers who think long term may find viable solutions that will serve them well.

Thanks for coming by!

Please provide this information so we can stay in touch.

CLOSE